A Fortuitous Handshake

A First Step towards Rapprochement with Cuba?

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US-Cuba Relations Opens a New Chapter
A Fortuitous Handshake : A First Step towards Rapprochement with Cuba? - Madeleine Holland

A major story to come out of Nelson Mandela’s memorial service this week concerned a handshake between two unlikely associates, Barack Obama and Raúl Castro.

Not since 2000 had an American president shook a Cuban leader’s hand. The gesture has been condemned, praised, and written off by various elements with an interest in the future of American policy towards Cuba, which has been dominated by embargo and diplomatic stalemate since 1961.

White House aides have professed that the handshake was unplanned. Indeed, as Obama jogged jovially up the stairs towards Raúl, it seemed much less a public relations scheme than a genuine and spontaneous gesture of goodwill. Perhaps Obama was inspired by Mandela, whose conciliatory legacy he commemorated in a moving speech at the event, to rise above hostilities in the spirit of ubuntu.

This handshake is not the first time Obama has indicated his partiality to change on the Cuba question. During his first term, Obama lifted restrictions on travel and remittances and eased limits on American telecommunications operations in Cuba. He has also advocated for policy change on the campaign trail and, more recently, at a November fundraiser in Miami. “The notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today…doesn’t make sense,” he said. While the impacts of these initiatives have been nominal as of yet, important developments in the domestic political landscape could facilitate a continuation in this direction towards more substantive change.

The Cuban diaspora has long been one of the most politically important constituencies in America, particularly given their concentration in the crucial swing state of Florida. While other ethnic lobbies (such as Jewish, Greek, and Armenian) marshal American policymakers towards improved relations with the home state, the Cuban political exile community’s mission has been aimed at imploding Fidel Castro’s regime. Cuban exiles have an impressive record of tenacity, having fought as insurgents at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, and continually supporting dissidents in Cuba via groups such as the Hermanos al Rescate. The Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), established in 1981, has been a highly effective political organization, advocating a hard-line stance that is characteristic of first-generation exiles such as Jorge Mas Canosa. Their political agenda aligned closely with America’s strategic interests during the Cold War, when Cuba posed a true ideological and military threat.

Since the Soviet Union’s fall, though, the lobby’s continued influence has arguably been disproportionate to Cuba’s diminishing threat level. Economically flagging absent a Soviet power patron, Cuba has suffered from post-Cold War sanctions, which have not merely persisted but intensified since 1991. The exile community has been a key driver of this strategy, rewarding punitive policies (as with the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992) and criticizing bilateral cooperation (as with the US-Cuba Immigration Agreement of 1994). The most aggressive post-Cold War legislation is the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which penalizes foreign companies for "trafficking" in property owned by American citizens before the Cuban Revolution. Canadian Members of Parliament, whose business community has been hurt by this law, satirized the antiquated logic of Helms-Burton in a parody bill calling for descendants of United Empire Loyalists who fled the American Revolution to be able to reclaim property confiscated by the American government. Contests for the approval of this vociferous constituency have heavily informed the creation of aggressive and outdated policies of this kind.

Yet today’s Cuban diaspora is increasingly diversified. Second- and third-generation émigrés bring different experiences to bear, and many of them are afflicted by a sense of embargo fatigue. A greater number of Cuban-Americans now advocate for revision of the status quo policy that has failed to collapse the Castro regime, only nominally different under Raúl. Rarely single-issue voters, they favour family ties and support of political dissidents in Cuba. Since 2000, a variety of interest groups have organized alongside CANF, representing a broader spectrum of viewpoints on the Cuba issue. Additionally, an influx of immigrants from other Latin American countries in South Florida has diminished the political weight of Cuban vote. While Obama did not win the hardliner Cuban vote in 2008 or 2012, he took the greater Hispanic vote – and Florida itself – in both elections. In 2012, 49% of Cuban-Americans in Florida reported their support for Obama over Romney, a stark departure from the diaspora’s traditional alignment with the GOP. This represents a historic opportunity for Washington to proceed on the Cuba issue in the absence of one of the most pervasive constraints on policymaking over the past fifty years.

To be sure, the exile community is neither the only nor perhaps the largest impediment to policy change. Political obstacles, legislative restrictions, and problematic human rights conditions in Cuba pose real challenges. Yet Obama should take advantage of his unprecedented margin of political leeway, and move beyond a default position of animosity that is damaging to both countries. The embargo has undoubtedly been economically destructive in Cuba, yet trade relationships with Venezuela, China, Russia, Canada, Europe and, recently, a strong advance by Brazil towards economic collaboration, suggest that Cuba may not be as reliant on the US economy as it was following the collapse of the Soviet Union. These countries are currently positioned to have an advantage over the United States in Cuba, and America may not want to wait until the Cuban economy opens up to claim its stake in the country’s future.

Should Obama choose to act on his professed impulse for change, a good place to start may be the removal of Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Unlike Helms-Burton, this action lies within his executive jurisdiction. This action could enjoy the political safety of corroboration by the State Department, which has already acknowledged that the Cuban government has not supported terrorist groups in recent years. By acting as the first mover, this conciliatory gesture could give Obama leverage in discussions about democracy and human rights in Cuba, and pull Cuban-American relations closer towards the 21st century.

As reactions to the Obama-Castro handshake demonstrated, Cuba is a controversial and often polarizing component of American foreign policy. Obama’s ability to craft the right narrative will undoubtedly be the linchpin that will make or break his prospects for policy revision. Where his Cuba policy is concerned, of one thing Obama can be sure: the whole world will be watching.